Want to Foster Change? Look for ‘Bright Spots’

Focusing on problems is a recipe for paralysis.

April 13, 2011

The heart and mind often disagree. Fervently.

That’s why it’s so difficult for people and organizations to make lasting changes, says Dan Heath, co-author of "Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard."

He says two different, competing systems rule people’s minds: the rational and the emotional.

The rational mind wants, for example, a great beach body, while the emotional mind wants a cookie, he explains. This type of conflict can doom efforts to make changes—a must-have skill for credit union leaders.

Heath—who will address the America’s Credit Union Conference in San Antonio, June 19-22—shares his insights on change.

Why did you write this book?

All of us crave some kind of change. We want to change things at home or at work or in society—not to mention changing ourselves.

But when you bring up “change” with people, they tend to shake their heads and say, “Change is hard.” No one seems to have a sense of how you go about changing things.

We wanted to provide the “how,” to mine decades of research in psychology and make it practical for people who are fighting for real change.


How do we convince people not to resist change?

We always say “change is hard” and “people resist change.”

But there are some relatively massive changes that people sign up for: People get married every day. And if minimizing change is your goal, having a kid is a deeply dumb decision.

But note that those big changes appeal to our emotions in a way that lots of small changes don’t, like changing something at work or going on a diet.

So one hint we discovered from our research on change is that we can’t think our way into change. Change starts with feeling.

What happens in our brain when we reach for that fattening cookie when we know we shouldn’t?

There’s a tug-of-war going on between two sides of our brain—the rational side and the emotional side.

The rational side of us knows we have no business eating the cookie. But the emotional side lusts after it.

And, unfortunately, for most of us, the emotional side is more powerful.

Next: A surprising discovery about change behavior

What was the most surprising discovery you made about change behavior?

That self-control is exhaustible, like a muscle.

We’ve all experienced this: You have a stressful day at work, and you come home and snap at your partner, or you have one drink too many. You burned up your self-control at work.

This is critical for change because all change requires self-control. Not just in the sense of resisting temptation, like a cookie or a drink, but in the sense that you have to manage your behavior deliberately.

So one implication of this is that you shouldn’t pile on too much change at once. Don’t pick six New Year’s resolutions, and don’t overhaul every aspect of people’s routines at once at work.

What did studying change across different disciplines reveal about change that has otherwise not been apparent?

If you go to the bookstore, you’ll see a long aisle of self-help books: how to diet, how to beat alcohol, and so on.

You’ll see parenting books. You’ll see “change management” books for executives. You’ll see “save the world” type books. And it’s like they’re all addressing unrelated problems.

But ultimately, for anything to change, somebody somewhere has to behave differently. And that’s why it was so easy to spot patterns among these different domains.

You can literally use the same change strategy whether you’re trying to change your son or change your neighborhood. It all comes down to behavior change.

The book says we often overcomplicate change. What do you mean by that?

When change doesn’t happen, we almost always blame it on people—people who are too “resistant” or “lazy.” But what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

For instance, we tell the story of a manager named Amanda Tucker who got poor ratings on “communication” from her employees. The problem was that when they’d come in her office, she’d often get distracted by e-mail and try to multitask while they were sitting there.

Is Tucker a bad manager? A poor communicator? Well, no. She rearranged her office one afternoon so she couldn’t see her monitor, meaning that she wouldn’t be distracted. And—poof—her communication scores went way up.

It wasn’t a problem with Amanda, it was a problem with her environment. And the environment was a lot easier to fix.

Next: Find 'bright spots’ to create change

What do you mean by ‘finding the bright spots’ to create change?

Psychology tells us we’re wired to look at the negative. When we want change, we tend to obsess about all the problems we’re having and we try to come up with solutions for them.

But, in times of change, there may be many things that aren’t working, so “problem focus” is a recipe for paralysis. Instead, we need to find the “bright spots,” the early signs that things are working, and clone them.

Let’s say you’re putting into place a new process at work and it has had mixed success. Don’t get caught up agonizing about the places where it’s not working. Instead, reverse-engineer the places where it is working so you can clone those circumstances.

Or if you have a troubled relationship with your teenager, ask yourself, when was the last time we had a really healthy interaction? What was different about that moment? If you understand what conditions made your bright spots possible, you can reproduce them.

Dan Heath is the co-author of "Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard."

He’ll bring his insights about change to the America’s Credit Union Conference in San Antonio, June 19-22.

Stay tuned: In part two of this interview, Heath will explain how to “shape the path” for change—and describe a personal lesson he has learned about the power of the environment.